TV

The Inside track on jockeys

For the men and women who list "jockey" as their occupation, it's about so much more than just the races.

It's about the sacrifices they make in their personal lives as they travel across the nation, seeking mounts. It's about the discipline it takes to maintain, at times, an unforgiving weight, and it's about how even a heated rival on the track can be a comrade hours later over a glass of wine.

Such things are a side of these athletes that most people never get to see. Which is why producers Liz Bronstein and Tina Gazzerro say they are thrilled to finally let a potential audience of millions in on the secret.

On Friday, the outside world will get a glimpse into the inner sanctum of the people who pilot Thoroughbreds for a living when the 12-episode series Jockeys premieres on Animal Planet.

Filmed primarily in California, the self-proclaimed "docu-soap" tracks the lives of seven jockeys — including Racing Hall of Famer Mike Smith — in the weeks leading up the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships during the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita Park last October.

Intrigued by the complexity of the riders' lives, Bronstein and Gazzerro conceived of the project five years ago but couldn't get it off the ground.

So when the duo heard Animal Planet was planning a show around a similar concept, Bronstein and Gazzerro say they "charged in" and let the network know: "We're the ones."

"It's a passion project for both of us," Bronstein, who grew up going to racetracks, said during a national teleconference on Tuesday. "I think what we were struck by was the absolute dedication it takes. Every moment of a jockey's life is devoted to racing: what they eat, how much they exercise, the sacrifices they make in their relationships. They're just extraordinary people and they're so involved on every level of racing."

In addition to being given full access around the tracks — including the jocks' room — to capture the competitive drama, the Animal Planet cameras followed their subjects at home.

Although awkward to deal with at times, that rare look into the riders' personal lives was considered by some of the participants to be one of the most important factors of the show — lest anyone think he or she is tuning in to witness 12 episodes of spills on the track.

"I think there will be no doubt people will walk away with a better idea of everything that goes on," said veteran jockey Aaron Gryder, who was dubbed "The Family Man" of the seven riders featured in the show. "I think it's great for the industry.

"Unfortunately, over the last several years, racing has had a lot of negative press, and I think it's partly because we get very little exposure," Gryder said. "I think by doing this it will bring people in who just like racing or never even followed racing before. It's fun, it's exciting and ... I think it will be great to see things from both sides of the fence."

Bronstein and Gazzerro had little doubt that the passion of the participants would come through, but one of the biggest challenges for the duo was making the often-complicated workings of the sport relatable to fans with casual or little knowledge of horse racing.

"It's such a complicated world, and there are so many levels to it," Bronstein said. "But one thing we found is they are really, really fun people. I thought they would be very serious and boring, but they were just the opposite."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle, however, was capturing the full story of the jockeys without interfering with their ability to do their jobs, Bronstein said.

Some riders approached to participate in the show declined for that reason alone. Ultimately, though, those involved think the crews remained respectful while being diligent.

"It was awkward at first having so many cameras in your house," said jockey Chantal Sutherland, whose romance with fellow rider Smith is one of the key relationships chronicled during the show. "But after a while, you got used to the guys working with you, and it actually got easy for us.

"The couple of jockeys they did ask to do the show that turned it down have all voiced regret because they didn't realize how big it would be and how well done it was."

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